Discussions between the “National Army” operating in the areas of Operation Olive Branch and Operation Euphrates Shield and the National Liberation Front (NLF) in the areas of Idlib, Hamah, Latakia and Aleppo led to the announcement that they would merge under the umbrella of a Ministry of Defence in an interim government created by the Syrian opposition this week.
Salim Idris was appointed minister of defence in the interim government, with the aim being to unify military decisions in northern Syria.
In the merger declaration, opposition interim Prime Minister Abdel-Rahman Mustafa said the new unified army, dubbed the New National Army, “will continue to liberate Syrian land from despotism and sectarianism. It will protect the unity and stability of the country and return it to its rightful owners, especially those east of the Euphrates River after the injustice and displacement they have suffered.”
He said the opposition Ministry of Defence would “do its utmost to defend the areas under opposition control in the north of the country.” It would defend northwest Syria, fight forces loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and help eliminate Kurdish forces in areas east of the Euphrates, he said.
An agreement was also reached to structure the new general staff.
One NLF military officer in the Operation Euphrates Shield positioned in the area of Al-Ghab on the northern coast told Al-Ahram Weekly that the interim government ministry was in charge of “nearly 110,000 fighters deployed throughout the entire liberated north of the country, with all of them being well armed.”
“They have heavy weapons such as tanks, along with automatic weapons, rocket launchers, field guns and mortars,” he added. “We will rely on the New National Army in its new formation after joining ranks with the NLF to defen tdhe liberated areas in northern Syria,” he said.
The NLF was previously affiliated with the National Army only organisationally, with NLF commanders taking major decisions. Although the military merger announced this week has come late and after eight years of decisions made by opposition factions in the areas under their control and often serving the agendas of their regional and international sponsors, it was widely welcomed.
The military commander who spoke to the Weekly said it was “a crucial step, especially in the light of talk about a political solution to the crisis in Syria. There must be an organised army for the revolutionaries to safeguard their sacrifices and to participate in building a future Syria without Al-Assad’s henchman and anyone who had committed atrocities against the Syrian people.”
The National Army was a force created and supported by Turkey and composed of fighters of what was previously called the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It was formed to fight Islamic State (IS) group and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the areas of Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch.
The NLF is a military body that includes several FSA factions as well as moderate factions sponsored by Turkey, most prominently the Al-Sham Legion. The National Army has 35,000 combatants and the NFL more than 70,000 fighters.
Naji Al-Alie, a spokesman for the NLF, told the Weekly that “after unifying ranks under the banner of the New National Army and merging with the NLF, the new force will play a key role in protecting and maintaining security in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas, as well as in the safe zone to be created in northern Syria.”
“The New National Army will have an effective role in defending Idlib and liberating areas east of the Euphrates from the control of terrorist organisations as well as protecting them in the future.”
“The unification plan was hatched after long negotiations between the National Army and the NLF, and the New National Army will transition from a factional structure to an institutional one built on distinguished military experience,” he said.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Saturday that his country would carry out air and land operations east of the Euphrates River in Syria to “establish peace.” He said the operations would be “very soon, if not today then tomorrow” and that they had come in response to “US procrastination” in creating a safe area in northern Syria as Ankara had previously demanded.
The Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) group, formerly the Al-Nusra Front, is present in all the areas under NLF control, but not in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch areas which are controlled by the National Army.
Turkish-Russian talks have concluded that the HTS, on an international list of terrorist organisations, must be dissolved as a precondition for ending the Russian airstrikes on Idlib. Moscow has used the presence of the HTS there as an excuse to bomb civilian facilities such as schools and hospitals.
The position of the HTS on this week’s merger is unknown, and those who are part of it insist the group will not be targeted, including its welfare arm, the Salvation Government. Marwan Al-Nahhas, a NLF political bureau chief, said that “we have no quarrel with the HTS. [The New National Army] will fight the regime and its supporters, and we hope to avoid any disputes with the HTS.”
The military merger has likely taken place to meet any military action by the regime and its supporters in Idlib since there is no actual ceasefire agreement even though Idlib is included in the Astana and Sochi Agreements signed by the guarantors of Turkey, Iran and Russia.
It will also make possible a more effective role for the political opposition, especially since meetings of the Syrian Constitutional Committee tasked to draft a new constitution will begin in Geneva at the end of the month.
It seems that the area east of the Euphrates will be in Turkey’s cross hairs soon and that the New National Army will play a role in the expected Turkish military operations and will not be used to fight the HTS group.
But questions remain about how independent military decisions will be from Turkey’s influence and whether the New National Army will play a bigger role than Turkey needs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.